Enforced lockdowns were slightly better at cutting Covid-19 deaths than allowing the public simply to follow recommendations, such as working from home and limiting social contact, research has found.
Experts from Johns Hopkins University, Lund University in Sweden and the Centre for Political Studies in Denmark have examined the effects of different Covid-19 measures.
The study concluded that for some governments future lockdowns could be "rejected" and other measures considered.
"Overall, our meta-analysis fails to confirm that lockdowns have had a large, significant effect on mortality rates," it said.
"Studies examining the relationship between lockdown strictness find that the average lockdown in Europe and the United States only reduced Covid-19 mortality by 0.2 per cent compared to a Covid-19 policy based solely on recommendations.
"Countries like Denmark, Finland, and Norway that realised success in keeping Covid-19 mortality rates relatively low allowed people to go to work, use public transport, and meet privately at home during the first lockdown. In these countries, there were ample opportunities to legally meet with others."
The findings indicated that lockdowns are not an effective way of reducing death rates during a pandemic, or at least not during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“These costs to society must be compared to the benefits of lockdowns, which our meta-analysis has shown are marginal at best,” the study said.
"Such a standard benefit-cost calculation leads to a strong conclusion: lockdowns should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument."
It found that closing non-essential businesses did have "some effect" in reducing Covid-19 mortality by 10.6 per cent and said this is likely to be related to the closure of bars.
The team found that some lockdown measures may have increased deaths.
"Often, lockdowns have limited peoples’ access to safe (outdoor) places such as beaches, parks, and zoos, or included outdoor mask mandates or strict outdoor gathering restrictions, pushing people to meet at less safe (indoor) places," it said.
"Indeed, we do find some evidence that limiting gatherings was counterproductive and increased Covid-19 mortality."
Researchers also found closing schools lowered deaths by 4.4 per cent, while asking people to stay at home prevented 2.9 per cent of deaths.
The study examined academic papers on lockdown measures and other interventions including the wearing of masks.